Wanting to hear violin music, not violin exercises

Edited: September 24, 2018, 4:07 PM · As I've been listening to more and more classical lately, and in particular violin solos and concertos, I'm struck by how often the underlying work seems to be less about making music, and more about showing one can play in some complicated or difficult way. As music, it is not always that enjoyable.

I was told the Bach Partitas were teaching works, and thus would fall into "see what I can do".

When I listen to Vivaldi Four Seasons, I hear music. When I listen to Moonlight Sonata or Fur Elise, I hear music (I know that's more piano oriented, but still). When I listen to Bach's Minuet in G Minor, I generally hear music, but a little bit of etude. Also, the 5th and 6th notes are usually hit so hard and staccato (piano), that it is out of character with the entire rest of the piece, and now that I've really noticed it once, it's destroying the piece for me.

Is this just part of the whole classical genre, i.e. it's some sort of ongoing competition?

I know I rambled a bit there, but.....

Replies (29)

Edited: September 24, 2018, 1:52 PM · Bach's Sonatas & Partitas are certainly not "teaching pieces"!!
But his music is more "dense" than Vivaldi's: every note counts, in a surprisingly "romantic" way.
Edited: September 24, 2018, 2:18 PM · My teacher told me the partitas were originally instructional pieces for his students. As I'm reading in Wiki, it seems the works came about because there was little or nothing existing for violin solo work, and these pieces established the violin as a solo instrument. Given that, perhaps "demonstration pieces" might be better than "instructional pieces". Of the ones I've listened to (probably not all), it was not enjoyable from a listening perspective. From a "I wish I could do that" perspective, yes.
September 24, 2018, 2:12 PM · I can’t imagine Bach wrote the chaconne for instructional purposes.
September 24, 2018, 2:19 PM · The Bach S&Ps are not teaching pieces! Though it's unclear how much if any public performance they received in Bach's lifetime.

Most of the Baroque composers we're familiar with today, including Bach, were court musicians, church musicians, or otherwise sponsored by the aristocracy. They wrote music for entertainment or for sacred purposes. You can figure that people actually danced to Bach's minuets, for instance.

The age of the virtuoso (Paganini et.al.) doesn't show up until long after.

September 24, 2018, 2:47 PM · Until Casals started playing them in recitals, the Bach Cello Suites were considered largely etude material. Maybe no one had the imagination to see them as beautiful music before, but a lot of pieces can sound like etudes if they are played like etudes. Hell, there is a Kreutzer etude that sounds a lot like the prelude from the first cello suite, and I'm sure that someone with some commitment and imagination could play it as more than an etude.

You also come to appreciate a piece the more you listen to it. Mozart and Bach took me a while. There's probably no amount of Mahler for me that will make me "get it". Be patient.

September 24, 2018, 3:06 PM · I can well imagine that someone like Bach might save his best musical ideas for pieces that he intended to assign to his own students. I heard that Heifetz performed Kreutzer No. 8 (E major) as a recital encore. We're often told that we should practice etudes not only for their technical content but also to extract as much musicality as possible (which admittedly is kind of a chore sometimes). But all of that suggests to me that there is a lot of gray area between what's a study and what's performance repertoire. One (wo)man's trash is another's treasure.
Edited: September 24, 2018, 3:21 PM · I'll admit I'm unschooled musically, and come from a fiddling background (though I'm a low level player). I guess I'm just logging out loud what I like and don't like, and what I don't like after trying for a while.

I guess I haven't listened enough to have my really favorite pieces. Particularly since listening from a violin perspective.

Eine Kleine Nacht Musik always used to get me going. ;-)

September 24, 2018, 5:48 PM · About the Bach pieces: Bach did not establish anything with them. He followed a tradition in Germany for such violin solo music. The most famous pre-Bach composer of such pieces would be Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. Unlike Bach he had the player tune the violin differently (i.e. not in 5th) for each of his so called "Rosencrantz sonatas". In this way double stops could be played that are not playable with the standard tuning.

As to recommendations: I hear you about music that is designed to showcase the performer's skill. I have the same problem with a lot of concertos and also with Caprices, Variations on a theme from an opera and other such genres. I'd recommend to listen to chamber music or to symphonic music. For example try Dvorak's "Dumky trio" or the "Symphony from the New World". Those are not designed for show off

September 24, 2018, 6:02 PM · Paul, I did see a YouTube video of Heifitz playing a Kreutzer etude as an encore but seem to recall it as #2 but I coukd be wrong.
September 24, 2018, 6:18 PM · Hi David. Just an idea. Maybe there are a few things that are in the mix: musical knowledge (or lack thereof - nothing to be ashamed off, I'm guilty too, we learn) and complexity of the musical piece ie understanding and following musical structure and content, personal taste as you suspect, confounding virtuosity with intricate complexity (and polyphony?), overt simplification and generalisation of the idea of the etudes: Chopin etudes cannot be boiled down to mere technical exercises...nor those of Paganini. There are actually pretty etudes all the way from Wolfhart, Mazas to Kreutzer, Rode, etc. Finally, Oistrakh could have play Sevcik theme and variations and it would have been immensely beautiful ( but not the drier Sevcik stuff :)
September 24, 2018, 6:24 PM · I do want to hear "a" violin as part of study, rather than a whole section of them, just as motivation, while I'm listening for pleasure. I'll try Dumky Trio. I'll try New World too. I don't think I ever gave it a full listen.
September 24, 2018, 9:05 PM · IMHO, Bach played by a master is the Music of God.
September 24, 2018, 9:13 PM · There is a show-off element to almost all musical performance, because of its role in entertainment -- and often, satisfying the demands of a patron.

Does the court have an especially talented flautist? Well then the court composer is probably going to write impressively virtuosic flute music. (The showcasing of the performer is a combination of good sense, a helping hand to the flautist to impress their patron, helping the patron show off his expensive human ornament in the form of a musician, and the ability to write anything without worrying about the technical difficulty.)

Is the patron a relatively good but not amazing amateur violinist? There's probably going to be stuff written to please him. Does the patron want to catch the eye of a musically inclined pretty lady? There'll be music for that, too.

Holds true for whatever genre of music, within its own cultural context anyway.

September 24, 2018, 9:18 PM · Maybe I better start at Haydn.
Edited: September 25, 2018, 1:26 AM · I chose Dvorak deliberately. He was not only a great composer, he was a violist (in the orchestra) before he could live by composing. He knew how to write for strings like few other composers. Moreover his music has a connection to folk music which I thought might appeal to someone with a "fiddling background" as you put it. I want to add the "American" string quartet (op. 96 in F) to the list.
September 25, 2018, 1:53 AM · This is a forum for violinists rather than music lovers, so it's not so surprising that we often seem to be neglecting the vast tranches of music written for the sake of the music itself rather than the expansion and demonstration of technical expertise. I mean of course orchestral and chamber music, the vast majority of which was written for players of modest ability, amateurs even!

It was marvelling at the pyrotechnics of great violinists that first got me listening to classical music but I very soon learned to love the music itself.

September 25, 2018, 4:31 AM · OP, I think the important thing for you to realize is that exercises can be played musically, and pieces can be played like exercises. HOW something is played is totally up to the musician playing it.

September 25, 2018, 5:16 AM · I find almost anything by Schubert and Mendelssohn to be an excellent introduction to chamber music... so much so that it's hard to pick a single piece to recommend from either composer. I suppose the big crowd-pleasers from Schubert are his "Death and the Maiden" string quartet and "Trout" quintet, but also look into his Cello Quintet (which means string quartet + cello, not 5 cellos). For Mendelssohn, my personal favorites include String Quintet No. 2, Piano Trio No. 1, String Quartet No. 3, and of course his Octet. Another great introductory piece is Borodin's String Quartet No. 2. All three of the above composers wrote all or most of their chamber music for amateurs!

I'd also suggest that much of the violin sonata repertoire is less flashy than the concerto repertoire. It's a more intimate genre, mostly written to be played for small audiences in salons rather than large public audiences in concert halls. My three favorite pieces in the violin's solo repertoire are actually the three Brahms sonatas, where not a single note is there just to show off the violinist's ability. (That said, Brahms may take a while to fully appreciate.)

While I realize you're looking for music featuring solo violins, I still want to draw your attention to some orchestral music that might appeal to your fiddling background. Look for Grieg's Holberg Suite for string orchestra, based on 18th century French dance forms, but infused with folk music. When it's played by a chamber orchestra, you can hear plenty of solo string sounds in it. Also listen to Mendelssohn's "Italian" and "Scottish" Symphonies: both are inspired by the folk music of the named countries, though no folk songs are quoted directly and the folk elements are filtered through a symphonic lens.

As for Bach, we classical musicians almost universally love him, but he can be somewhat of an acquired taste, and his unaccompanied violin and unaccompanied cello music is quite often played badly. Try his Brandenburg Concertos instead.

September 25, 2018, 5:58 AM · Someone told me once that composers don't (didn't) write the music thinking in the public. They compose thinking in the musicians that will play it. Sometimes, namely, as they have a particular orchestra or player in mind. So it's easy and frequent that composers throw "candies" in the composition for those players.
And there is another problem with pieces with solo interpretations. Too often the player turns it in "about me".

But as Erik says, as much as some make any piece a "masterclass", there are others that put themselves at the service of the music they are playing.

September 25, 2018, 6:46 AM · Tanks all for all the works to check out. And the advice to look for sonatas, not concertos.
September 25, 2018, 7:27 AM · @Carlos "Someone told me once that composers don't (didn't) write the music thinking in the public. They compose thinking in the musicians that will play it." I'm not sure who contemporary composers are thinking of when they write long and complex works whose premiere is also frequently their derniere. Not the players for sure. A bass-tuba player of my acquaintance brought delight to my ears by telling me the anagram of "Harrison Birtwistle" that someone in the English National Opera pit had come up with while wrestling with one of his operas. It began "'Orrible warts..." and you can easily work out the rest.

And another thing - does any orchestral player ever enjoy having to play "minimalism"?

Edited: September 25, 2018, 10:09 AM · With reference to classical sonatas, be aware that Beethoven's "Kreutzer" could be considered as at least halfway to being Beethoven's Violin Concerto No 2. And anyway, this is a violin sonata where you need a PDG pianist!
Edited: September 25, 2018, 8:32 AM · May be you're confusing violin partitas and sonatas with the cello suites, which were practice/technical/etude-like pieces for the cello, until a cellist named Casals worked on them.

I have not heard Bach's sonatas and partitas for violin were etude-like material. Only heard about the cello suites.

Anyways, showing off that you are technically a superior violinist doesn't mean you don't care about music. I know what you mean by that, I know many people that find Paganini's music soul-less. Yeah, pun intended, the devil got his, hahahaha. Nevertheless I find most of his pieces incredibly superb, many blow my mind, how is that even possible to do with the violin?

You got to understand Paganini music is not like Bach's, they are very different. As an amateur that plays the violin I enjoy so much any show-off piece that makes sense to me. If Paganini wouldn't care about music, he would play all fast and as difficult as possible, but that's not at all the case, he changes the tempo, the mood of the piece. I've listened sometimes to some caprice where the violinist was a little too fast and the piece was falling apart, I was not enjoying it.

There's nothing wrong about writing very difficult music. That Fur Elise piece you find so amazing, well, a pianist friend of mine totally hates it, he says it is very boring, he considers it even a mocking piece, a piece wrote not seriously.

All the violin concertos I've listened to totally got me hypnotized by their beauty, some not the very first time, but after the second or third time, all did. I must say I've only listened, for now, to the most known concertos, not contemporary crazy pieces. May be that's why I've not been disappointed a single time, but for sure I will give the new ones a try.

Anyways, my point is, what some people find music-less, pure show off and nothing else, others will find it amazing.
I've also faced the weird feeling of attending to a live concert overly excited about a legendary piece from a legendary composer, I was about to listen to it for the first time, live, and after the concert, feel that was not at all what I expected. Specially for piano pieces, I've found out some performances that I love so, so much, were considered "bad" by some pianists friends of mine. That shocked me but I'm used to it, it's simply that different people react differently to a performance.

I've sometimes performed in public. One day I performed a piece not that well, I was conscious about that, I knew how the piece should sound and I did not do a great job, although I finished it correctly and went through it solidly. Anyways, after the little recital, a young kid that happened to have started to take violin lessons for a few months came to me and said that was an amazing performance, he was totally amazed by the piece and my performance and he wanted to play like me.

My first thought was "what? did you even listen to it? I played it not so well!" but I said an automatic "thank you so much, I'm glad you enjoyed it!". Then I thought about me, the moment I bought a ticket to see Pinchas Zukerman live and how much I enjoyed all his playing, from the very beginning to the last note, everything sounded like heaven. I'm quite sure Pinchas would have told me that I was crazy, that was not a good performance, just OK.

So, what you find an exercise others may find it a beautiful piece. I would want to end the life of someone that tells me that the Bruch/Mendelssohn/Brahms/Tchaikovsky violin concerto is not a musical piece or that is not that great of a piece, hahahaha.

Edited: September 25, 2018, 6:30 PM · If you're at the standard* where you could expect to successfully perform a Kreutzer or Rode etude in a public recital or as an encore then I would suggest there is more useful musical material for this in Rode than in most of Kreutzer that would be attractive to an audience - Rode 6 and 7 for example.

*incidentally a standard which in view of my starting the violin at a rather late age I am not likely to achieve!

September 25, 2018, 7:37 PM · Oh, as violin concertos go: perhaps the Brahms concerto would appeal? While it's very much a virtuoso piece, it was panned after its first performance for not highlighting the soloist enough! One critic accused Brahms of making the solo "almost part of the orchestra," one quipped that it was not so much a concerto for the violin as a concerto "against the violin," and Pablo de Sarasate refused to play it because he thought the solo violin had too many rests.
September 26, 2018, 12:03 PM · I have that same negative emotional reaction to many of the 19th century violin concertos, (Not the Brahms, only about half of the Tchaikovsky). It's like watching the high-wire artist at the circus, or the elephant walking on two legs. You are afraid they are going to fall and crash at any moment. Maybe if I played a different instrument I might enjoy hearing those pieces more.
September 26, 2018, 1:05 PM · I am strange (no news, I suppose), in that I love and have a special place for the romantic virtuoso repertoire. Not "etudes" at all to me, but it represents a high point in violin artistry which has been mostly lost nowadays.

Not "nostalgia" on my part, as I wasn't alive back then-just really love this violin-centric music which all too often is full of beauty and natural, violin-as-a-singer passages. There's much to learn and discover among the long-forgotten "jewels" of 19th century violin works.

September 26, 2018, 1:20 PM · What do you call "long forgotten jewelry"?
September 26, 2018, 3:26 PM · Pearls before time?

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